Keys to the NBA Conference Finals

The 2011 NBA conference finals are underway and this final four gives us youth, age, and plenty of superstar power. The conference finals have all this and more, even without the Celtics, Lakers, and Spurs. Actually, there was very little chance any of those three teams could have given the finals any semblance of youth.

In the end, the NBA conference finals will be won by a team with superstars, but the question is how many superstars does it take in 2011 to win a championship? This is also the year that the championship team didn't have to worry about overcoming a nemesis and didn't have to worry about learning how to win in the playoffs.

Two keys to making the NBA Finals this year are: how many superstars does it take in 2011 to win and will experience matter and if it does what kind of experience will prevail in 2011?

The Stars' Need to Shine

The NBA is a league of stars and this year's final four teams embody that theme. Lately, there are at least three stars on championship teams, but this year, only one team can make that claim.

There was the Big Three in Boston, and they went deeper than three with Rajon Rondo, who was every bit the star the big three were. The Lakers had Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, and Andrew Bynum/Lamar Odom (together they combined to form one superstar) as their core. The Spurs had Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker doing most of the damage to opponents.

All season long, the Heatl have let everyone know they are the team with the Big Three for 2011. This year, Miami is three stars and not a whole lot more. The Big Three are dominating and scoring most of the team's points and that doesn't look like it is going to change in the conference finals. All three will need to fire on every cylinder for 48 minutes. Mike Bibby and the rest of the Heat haven't exactly proven to be a reliable cast of characters.

Miami is the team with the most depth at superstar and the shallowest in talent behind them. The Big Three will feel the most pressure of the four teams not only because they have guaranteed multiple championships, but because the rest of the team is along for the ride.

The opposite of the Heat are the Chicago Bulls. They have one superstar and the most depth behind him of any of the four remaining teams. Derrick Rose has not only lifted the Bulls to a one seed, but almost single-handedly eliminated the Indiana Pacers in round one. He has looked unstoppable all year and it is unlikely he will be contained in the conference finals.

Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and the rest of the Bulls can not only score, but they can play defense. Derrick Rose won't feel as much pressure as Miami's Big Three in the conference finals because he has a team on the court with him. Rose has already proven he is the MVP, but can a team with one superstar win a championship?

It is difficult to imagine Rose playing any better than he has in the playoffs, but he will need to if Chicago is to advance. The Bulls can't win a one-on-three series, but can win if Rose's supporting cast steps up and cools off the Heat's Big Three.

The Dallas Mavericks have Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd in the superstar roles. It is easy to say it is just Nowitzki, but Kidd has been to the finals in the past. The supporting cast has plenty of experience with Jason Terry having been to the finals with Dirk, Peja Stojakovic, and Shawn Marion having been deep in the playoffs in the careers.

Nowitzki has suddenly become the "it" player in the playoffs and the team's perimeter shooting needs to stay hot for them to get past the fast and athletic Thunder. The Mavericks will want to rely on the experience of their superstars to figure out how to slow down the Thunder.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have been the most talked about combination of superstars in the playoffs. Does Westbrook take too many shots? Can he learn the position? The answers are fairly simple — the team is in the conference finals. What they are doing is working. Durant is the league's leading scorer and the real question is how much can the rest of the Thunder contribute? Are Westbrook and Durant enough? The answer is unlikely.

Learning How to Win

The maxim that teams need to learn how to win in the playoffs has been thrown redefined in these playoffs. The NBA rule that championship teams have an adversary they must beat after losing to that team multiple times has been blown up this season. This year, learning to win is taking on a whole new meaning. In the past, learning to win in the playoffs meant multiple playoffs appearances over the course of a few years where the team kept advancing every year.

This final four grouping had a very steep learning curve and no long running playoff rivals to overcome. The closest rival was the Mavericks organization facing a rival known as implosion and foe that goes by the name of underachieving.

Miami's Big Three was assembled last summer and their first playoff run has been a sprint to the finals with little opposition in the playoffs. They haven't had to learn how to beat anyone. It is being said LeBron had to learn how to beat the Celtics. But the Celtics didn't lose to LeBron; they were dominated by the Big Three. The Miami Heat's Big Three had to learn to play with each other as opposed to learning how to win in the playoffs.

Derrick Rose is in his third season and the Bulls under his leadership have hardly had a Detroit Pistons-like foe to overcome like the Michael Jordan-led Bulls did. This group of Bulls looked like they learned how to win in the playoffs in their five game series against the Indiana Pacers. The games were close and Indiana played hard, but Chicago and Rose had too much in the end and at the end of each game.

The Dallas Mavericks haven't had to overcome a foe as much as they have had to overcome their organization's recent history. Since their collapse in the finals to the Miami Heat, the Mavericks have never given anyone the feeling that they were going back to the NBA finals, let alone the conference finals. Dallas always seems to add a veteran at the trade deadline, only to watch the team collapse and never seemed to be greater than sum of their parts.

But this year, Dallas is shooting the ball extraordinarily well and crushed the Lakers as much as the Lakers imploded. Los Angeles didn't stand a chance against a hot-shooting Dallas team this year.

Last year, it looked like Oklahoma City was a couple of years away from going deep in the playoffs. It looked like the defeat at the hands of the Lakers in the previous playoffs was part of a learning curve and maybe in a few years, the Thunder could beat the Spurs or the Lakers.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant lead a young team that isn't as interested in learning as it is winning. It was said Westbrook needed to learn to take less shots and needed to learn the position better for the Thunder to have a chance. Westbrook put all the criticism to rest with a Game 7 win and a triple-double against the Memphis Grizzlies.

The teams closest to having experience are the Mavericks and the Heat. Both have superstars who have made the finals in the past. The teams with the most superstars are the Mavericks and the Heat. The Bulls and the Thunder are the teams that are playing with house money, as the expectations and pressure aren't as great for them.

The final four NBA teams haven't needed years to learn to win in the playoffs and haven't had to overcome a team that haunted them in past playoff appearances. Miami needed to keep learning how to improve their team chemistry. Chicago learned how to win in five games against Indiana. The Mavericks needed to learn how to exorcise their demons as a franchise and not implode during the playoffs. The Thunder either learned all they needed last year and have a steep learning curve or don't realize they are breaking the NBA rule that says you don't get to advance in the playoffs without paying dues.

This year's NBA finalists will let us know how many superstars it takes to win a championship and will redefine what it is to "learn" in the NBA playoffs.

Comments and Conversation

May 23, 2011


I really hope the Bulls make it this time around. The Miami Heat is such an athletic team in that they are almost impossible to beat.

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